Monday, December 20, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Multiplayer Moments 1

bobliu123 and Hoxieboy are discussing bots. Bots copy and paste sections of the map by placing brown and red mushrooms as  markers.

Hoxieboy uses his bot to erect an enormous Danish flag. Hoxieboy is from Idaho. Hoxieboy has to leave because his "mom is being mean."

We build a double rainbow all the way around the map. Griefers invade and destroy, our bots rebuild.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Production of New Babylon

Unlike the "Habbos" of Habbo Hotel or the "Residents" of Second Life, the blocky avatars in Minecraft's worlds do not, as of yet, have an official name which identifies them as a collective. Perhaps it is best to think of them as a species, and as such they should be given an appropriately scientific name. The name given to humans, Homo sapiens, denotes us as "wise" creatures, and though the inhabitants of Minecraft may be intelligent, they exhibit more specific behaviors that set them apart from humanity as a whole. A central element of the game is a challenge of construction; the players are definitively builders and makers. This suggests the title Homo faber– "Man the builder." But as creatures of a game-space, the avatars also signify beings at play; Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga is famous for dubbing such creatures "Homo Ludens" to emphasize play as an important element of culture. While a collective name may remain elusive, perhaps the culture of Minecraft and its blend of playful and productive behavior can provide for reflection on these themes.

New Babylon (via)
Homo Ludens is a relevant "species" to study as it forms the population of New Babylon, a utopian world imagined by Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuis. Minecraft is New Babylon in so many ways, but in its similarity it also offers a poignant critique of New Babylon's social foundation.

New Babylon is founded upon the belief that automation of the means of production will eventually elliminate the "utilitarian" need for labor; the productive role of Homo Faber would be rendered obsolete via technology, leaving Homo Ludens free to create without bounds:
"As a way of life Homo Ludens will demand, firstly, that he responds to his need for playing, for adventure, for mobility, as well as all the conditions that facilitate the free creation of his own life. Until then, the principle activity of man had been the exploration of his natural surroundings. Homo Ludens himself will seek to transform, to recreate, those surroundings, that world, according to his new needs. The exploration and creation of the environment will them happen to coincide because, in creating his domain to explore, Homo Ludens will apply himself to exploring his own creation. Thus we will be present at an uninterrupted process of creation and re-creation, sustained by a generalized creativity that is manifested in all domains of activity."(source)
Inside New Babylon, showing moveable elements. (via)
Minecraft is exactly this: a game of exploration that moves from exploring the world as it is, to exploring the world being constantly created and re-created by its inhabitants. Constant chooses "walls, floors, terminals, bridges, etc." as the modules that can be reconfigured within his superstructure; in Minecraft every single block in the world (sand, water, stone, or wood, etc.) can be removed from its place, transported, and reinstalled to build up something new. But while much time can be spent shuffling blocks from place to place, an additional mechanism of reconfiguration is provided through the "crafting" interface.

Minecraft's crafting interface.
Crafting in Minecraft is a form of productive work that turns naturally occurring resource blocks into tools, supplies, and building materials of utilitarian or decorative value. In the most recent releases of the game, resource acquisition and crafting consume vast amounts of time while playing the game. There is, of course, no technical reason that a player must craft new blocks; the computer that runs the game is a form of programmable automated system that could simply provide unlimited amounts of materials. In fact, this is how the original version of Minecraft (now called "Classic") functioned. But gamers want more than this. Notch puts it best:
"Free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you've got it figured out. It's like playing a first person shooter in god mode, or giving yourself infinite funds in a strategy game.. a lack of challenge kills the fun." (source)
This seems like an obvious principle in game design, but why isn't it thought of the same way in urban design? With automated plants churning away in the underground providing for all the needs of the people above, the Homo Ludens of New Babylon are liable to get bored moving around walls and stairs all day. Constant's vision was, in his words, the "Marxist kingdom of freedom," so he might be appeased by the suggestion that challenge can come from more playful sources than a capitalist system of wage labor. The new society growing within Minecraft doesn't see automation as a tool to "free" people from productive work. Instead, automation manifests as a body of computational tools ("the game") which enable people to create through play. Gameplay is the process that reconciles Homo Faber with Homo Ludens; players delight in the act of creating useful things and sharing them with the larger community.

There are a number of results for "Minecraft factory" on YouTube that show how players have exploited quirks in the game to automate the production of certain building elements. The factories are less remarkable for their utility than for demonstrating how much players enjoy being clever play-producers.

I need to reiterate the situation in which I first learned of Minecraft because I believe it illustrates this point excellently: In the Ruhrgebiet, a region built on a working class identitiy and deeply entrenched in labor politics, one of the first generations for whom labor has been rendered irrelevant through automation chooses to express a postindustrial fantasy via game play of simulated mining, the very pursuit their parents and grandparents toiled and died for. And look where Constant imagined his vision spreading:

Where are the spaces for playful production in cities, either in visionary utopias or the real urban centers of today? What is their potential? What is the potential for games to be the virtual site of real design and production for an urbanizing world?

Sunday, October 24, 2010


During the summer of 2010, I lived in the Ruhr region of Germany as part of the 2010 European Capital of Culture. My residence was a 10 square meter nomadic modular dwelling unit-- the WALKING HOUSE, a project I helped build in collaboration with Danish art collective N55. I shared this meager living space with two others as we engaged in a strange sort of cultural exchange. We learned much about the region's history as a former industrial center now undergoing a difficult transition and identity crisis as environmentally harmful modes of production and mineral extraction are outsourced to the developing world. It was a place to meditate on ideas of autonomy, production, and leisure in a globalized society where such issues are central to making sense of the world to come.

The WALKING HOUSE in Germany

Our distinctive habitat was a temporary beacon in the landscape, an unintentional nomadic research station of sorts, that put us in contact with an interesting cross section of local people. My housemate Bill McKenna made friends with a group of post-industrial suburban youth who found social refuge in heavy metal music and video games. In this German community that had taken a painful hit to its working class identity, it was ironic that the newest favorite game of Bill's "gamer friends" was, to a large extent, a coal mining simulation: Minecraft.

The WALKING HOUSE is one of many projects by N55 that promote the building of autonomous, self-sufficient, dynamically scalable communities with the design of systems for distributed production (1 2 3 4 5) and modular architecture (1 2 3 4) And N55 is one of many groups that have approached these issues through art and design. If only through a superficial resemblance to Archigram's famous Walking City, the WALKING HOUSE can clearly be seen as an extension of visions promoted by the architectural avante-garde of the last century. It is then perhaps appropriate that the house was the site of my introduction to the game which this blog hopes to connect with such visions.

Suspended cubic forms from Yona Friedman

Minecraft is what's called a "sandbox game" or an "open world." The gameplay is entirely nonlinear and is shaped by the player's own desires and interests. There are no levels to ascend, no bosses to kill, no quests to conquer, no explicit storyline to engage with. As such, it's hard to give a satisfactory description of what the game is "about." Even the game's creator, notch, chooses to avoid the question of "what it is" on the official website and instead simply provides a video of a rollercoaster he built in-game. Each player experiences the world of Minecraft differently in part becasue the world of Minecraft is uniquely shaped--literally--by the player as he or she moves through the game.  Yet the game has become massively popular despite the ambiguity of gameplay and the fact that it is only available as a buggy in-progress alpha release. There is one distinct component of the gameplay that defines the experience for all: the 3D world of Minecraft is made up of cubic blocks that can be both destroyed and created by the player. The blocks exist exclusively on a discrete Cartesian grid that permeates the Minecraft universe, forming an invisible lattice into which players can insert or out of which players can carve structures of their own design. It is an extremely addictive building game, akin to a world of LEGO blocks that become inhabitable, confronting the user with an unmistakable experience of space as both void and product, form and perpetually re-definable function. From my experience with the game, it exhibits a Utopian architecture par excellence. The forms and systems designed by avant-garde visonaries from the past half-century are manifest in this virtual world to a degree not possible in the meatspace of planet Earth. This conjecture is the point of departure for the series of posts that will follow here.

I hope that my writing will be accessible and of interest to two key audiences: Those already well versed in architecture and urbanism will hopefully be keen to learn how theoretical visions have been unintentionally implemented in the virtual world of Minecraft while gamers who have not previously ventured into thinking critically about the spaces of their communities and cities might find words, ideas, and inspiration to advocate for more real examples of the type of creative freedom they enjoy in cyber-playspace. The format of a blog seems conducive to these goals; by essentially writing in public, I hope my text isn't rendered static, locked away in a journal or magazine of interest only to one specialized party of another. My hope is that this process can be a generator of action, whether it's the creation of new games, real-world interventions, or a productive shift of attitudes that sparks conversation between the people who are playing such games for fun and the theorists and designers who analyze and construct space professionally. I am at heart a creator and artist; though this endeavor is initially one of analysis, the eventual goal is to tease out concepts for production with the help of a larger community. Perhaps the central question is this: how can the machines of mass-appeal and entertainment created by figures like notch, John Carmack, or Jane McGonigal engage with the spatio-social dreams of Constant Nieuwenhuys, Cedric Price, Yona Friedman, Archigram, and Reyner Banham?

Modular variety in Archigram's Plug In City

In-game creations on a multiplayer Minecraft server

Dynamically reconfigurable space in Cedric Price's Fun Palace

In general, this blog will discuss video games and the design of cities. More specifically, it will focus on Minecraft, a game of infinitely varied user-built construction that emerges from a simple and rigid structure of aggregating modular units, and the architectural visions of designers in the 60's and 70's, who sought to bring about roughly the same thing. On the way, we'll tour the history of spaceframes, the practice of "griefing," prospects for socialist space, the virtuosic production of spheres, informal building in shantytowns, speculation on redstone-based cybernetic automation, virtual dérive and more.